Bright Lights, Vibrant Components

Twenty-three of the 25 affiliate groups of the Maryland-based bakery association measured up to headquarters performance standards within one year of their launch as part of a new initiative to build a stronger association network. Time to celebrate? After all that’s a 92 percent pass rate. Considering that fewer than half of the affiliates could claim a full board with fresh faces, most had less than a 15 percent penetration of their respective markets, only a handful had regularly scheduled events or newsletters, and membership numbers remained stagnant, we didn’t think so. Bottom line: These state and regional affiliates could meet the standards and still fail.

This scenario which unfolded years ago when I headed membership and affiliate relations at the association drove Mariner to study the phenomena of under-performing chapters who nonetheless meet performance requirement. The standards had failed—not because the local groups couldn’t meet them, but because meeting the particular standards didn’t improve the performance of the chapters in areas of governance, member services, or market penetration. We needed a new approach that would focus on the make-or-break items, allowing us to intervene in the areas where we would have the greatest impact. We also knew we needed a tool that allowed for the individuality of each chapter.

Taking a lead from the business world, we looked at the value of the dashboard indicator. Exploration led us to a myriad of dashboard tools in action in the early 2000s. We studied examples from colleges, health care facilities, corporations, and nonprofit organizations—specifically Habitat for Humanity. We even found the Dashboard for Sustainability, which is used internationally in analysis and planning for international development projects. By tailoring the dashboard concept to organization components, could we identify the handful of critical variables that determined a chapter’s success and set up a system for measuring those? We decided that it was an idea worth trying.

After conducting in-depth surveys of 32 associations with components and studying information available through ASAE, the answer was yes. (Download white paper for more details on survey methodology.) We crafted a prototype chapter dashboard and tested the concept via a chapter assessment with a couple of associations. Like a car’s dashboard, this chapter tool offers a visual signal of a chapter’s health and warnings of problems. By paying attention to key factors, we can assess those performance measures, monitor them regularly, and act promptly when warnings are indicated.

One association used the information gained from its dashboard indicators to make a change. It showed that its chapters weakest area was administrative support. This knowledge prompted the board to shift some dollars from its legislative grants to administrative grants to help chapters build the necessary support. Associations can rarely fund or address all concerns. Knowing which items will make the bigger difference is a valuable tool in making better decisions. The flexibility of the dashboard indicator concept means that many associations can benefit from its use as a tool to set priorities for staff time and dollars.

The Keys to Chapter Success

Analyzing the results of our survey, we uncovered a clear set of four elements that correlate to chapter success: leadership, administrative structure, member involvement, and member services. These then became our dashboard indicators.

Across the 32 associations we surveyed, we found that when the indicators were strong in these four areas, a chapter had strong membership numbers, successful events, and a solid financial standing. The national offices of the respective organizations found these chapters were rich with ideas, produced effective national leaders, helped in building and retaining membership, and generated involvement in national programs.

Interestingly, no correlation existed between chapter success and the national organization’s budget, staff size, level of support, or chapter standards.

Four strong indicators

Next we identified a “full”, “safe”, and “low” or warning level. We used our research to identify each level’s basic characteristics. For example, all strong chapters had a diverse board that drew in and cultivated new volunteers to take on leadership roles. They participated in leadership training. And the boards avoided recycling board members over and over. Conversely, a chapter with an aging board, vacant seats, and leaders on their second or third shift indicated weak leadership and a “low” dashboard light.

The research provides associations with two critical pieces of data: 1) the areas to concentrate on in assessing chapters and 2) the characteristics of a strong light. From this point, each association must set its unique measurements such as the definition for diverse in referring to leadership or optimum size for its board. We found the values vary across associations, but the characteristics of a strong indicator do not. The following examples describe associations which demonstrates the full level of one of the dashboard indicators.

♦ Sustainable leadership. When the incoming volunteer president of the Chesapeake Chapter of a financial association lost her job in a bank merger, the board developed a contingency plan in case her job search took her out of the area and she was unable to fill her leadership role. When that eventually happened, this board was ready to move quickly to select another leader, because it had invested in leadership development by regularly sending additional officers to headquarters leadership training conference, by holding an annual strategic planning session, and by having an annual plan in place. The first vice president stepped up to the plate and assumed the top position, validating the chapter’s strong leadership gauge.

♦ Supportive administrative structure. Administrative solutions come in many sizes and shapes. A number of national associations offer software tools to support event management at the local level so that its chapters consistently produce effective events. This tool helps chapters automate key aspects of meeting planning and marketing. Added to that, the a professional development series aids chapters in selecting—and paying for—speakers. Centralized financial services is another area where associations are finding they can offer support that has a positive impact on financial stability and volunteer satisfaction; Billhighway offers a number of intriguing case studies.

♦ Enthusiastic member involvement. Members of the state medical specialty medical society actively participate in a wide range of activities from legislative issues to grass-roots public relations. Although not directly affected by rising professional liability insurance rates, this dedicated group mustered a strong showing at a Rally for Reform at the state house in support of fellow physicians. Advertising, special member mailings, and staff time to coordinate logistics were part of the statewide effort. The society credits the collective efforts of its members for its success in empowering its agenda and moving it forward. The national society agrees and recently awarded the chapter its Model Society honor for the second time in four years.

♦ Worthwhile member services. The chapter administrator of the state chapter for health care association told us that one of the biggest challenges to the organization is to remain relevant to its members. Understanding and acting on this premise is one reason the chapter has a strong member services gauge. After achieving a big legislative win on a galvanizing issue for members—third-party reimbursement—the association modified its agenda to focus on continuing education and services related to licensing.


Implementing the dashboard

The first step in adopting a dashboard approach is to define the indicator values that fit your association. The values are as individual as the association. Take, for example, member services. At RBA, a local legislative agenda was not a critical member need, while such an agenda is at the top of the benefit list for American Physical Therapy Association chapter members.

Even within your own chapters, you will find varying needs—and therefore varying descriptions of what makes a strong dashboard light. For example, the Risk Management Association has chapters for which a community bank or a women-in-banking affinity group is a critical program, while for others affinity groups are not even a part of member services.

In the case of the member services gauge, the light is strong when your members are satisfied, not when you are satisfied. To evaluate this gauge, conduct member satisfaction surveys and focus groups, incorporating your findings with data from other measures such as the results of delinquent member reports and other attendance counts.

Once you’ve identified the values that are relevant to your organization, you are ready to set up your dashboard.

To set up the dashboard for your association, follow five basic steps:

  1. Begin by revisiting the mission and vision of the national organization and the chapter.
  2. Define your gauges as they relate to the mission. Assign one team to work on each of the four gauges. In selecting teams, engage chapter and national leaders, staff, and members.
  3. Determine methods to measure success and establish them.  For example, a vibrant leadership can be measured in terms of the number of new volunteers signing on for leadership positions and the existence of an active leadership succession plan.
  4. Conduct a chapter assessment to establish initial dashboard readings. Measure each chapter using the methods described earlier, assigning a “full,” “safe,” or “low/warning” light in each category. Some will have all lights registering full; others may have all or most lights registering low; but most will show a mixture of readings.
  5. Assign a staff member to regularly monitor the gauges. You may also engage a volunteer task force to assist. The critical element is finding a simple tool that allows the association to provide meaningful, regular feedback to chapter leaders. As you set this up, some areas, such as communication, will require monthly monitoring, while items such as board elections could be monitored on an annual basis.

Once in place, use this tool as you do your car’s instrument panel. Watch for warnings and identify areas for mentoring an ailing chapter or an emerging chapter. Let it guide your planning. If you find, for example as we did in our prototype chapter assessment for one association, that many of your chapters are weak in one of the gauges, you may choose to focus staff and resources on that area.

The critical difference between the chapter dashboard tool and the standard chapter-evaluation program is the latter often focuses on chapter structure and activity.  The dashboard looks at how chapters is producing leaders, attracting and engaging members, and creating relevant programs.


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